This morning I was listening to a podcast from US National Public Radio on the topic 'word of the year'. The commentator Geoff Nunberg chose 'tribalism' as his word of the year and focused his explanation on the politics of identity.
I've been thinking a lot about tribalism this year, trying to decide whether it's a good or bad thing. Nunberg says people often 'use "tribal" to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty' and that this can lead society to become 'fragmented into factions that deny one another's legitimacy'.
At various moments of the debate on same sex marriage in Australia, I could see this kind of 'we are right you are wrong' attitude on both sides. So I was heartened that the 'yes' case supporters in the public gallery of Parliament House chose 'I am Australian' when they broke into song after the vote was passed last Thursday.
The song's refrain - 'we are one, but we are many' - specifically recognises the legitimacy of tribes beyond our own. It implicitly affirms identities that are centred around many commonalities including gender and sexual preference. Thursday's cause for celebration was the successful passage of the bill that meant our nation's marriage law would now include identities it had previously excluded.
In the lead up to the postal survey, I found it interesting to read an article in The Conversation identifying tribes within the GLBTI community that were notably unenthusiastic about voting 'yes'.
These groups were composed of predominantly older GLBTI people who were proudly countercultural. They feared that marriage 'would become the gold standard for same-sex relationships and other relationship styles would be regarded as less worthy'.
As I understood it, these groups were not denying the legitimacy of GLBTI people wanting to get married. They just hoped that equal marriage supporters would return the favour and recognise the legitimacy of their rejection of marriage as a lifestyle choice. I believe that they got their wish, at least to the extent that they did not suffer criticism from the 'yes' supporters.
With regard to the Catholic Church, it has to be argued that the majority of bishops supported a position that exemplifies the negative characterisation I quoted above. That is a non-recognition of the distinction between solidarity and blind loyalty that leads to a denial of the legitimacy of those with opposing views.
It was therefore gratifying that so many Catholics followed the lead of the few bishops who advocated a vote according to conscience on what they insisted was in any case a secular matter. This turned out to be a demonstration of the good that can exist in tribalism - solidarity and qualified loyalty.
Links: Nunberg | The Conversation